Morning Briefing - February 13, 2019
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February 13, 2019

Pentagon ‘Satisfied’ With NNSA Pit Plan, But Warns Civilian Agency is ‘Out of Margin’

By Dan Leone

ARLINGTON, Va. — The Defense Department remains satisfied with the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) strategy to produce plutonium pits at two facilities, but time is short to get started, a senior Pentagon official said here.

“DOD is fully behind the NNSA’s current plan,” Peter Fanta, deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear matters, said in a question-and-answer session at the ExchangeMonitor’s annual Nuclear Deterrence Summit. “It is an aggressive plan, it is a difficult plan, they have to stay on timelines that are very aggressive.”

The plan is so aggressive, Fanta warned, that the NNSA is “out of margin” and needs to “Get to a pit production facility that works, and get to it as fast as possible. Stop discussing it, stop slowing it, stop looking at it again, stop looking at seven other alternatives. There is one plan. Get on it, get to it, get it done.”

In August, Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said the NNSA needed to “be on a path” to meet the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review goal of manufacturing 80 war-usable warhead cores a year by 2030.

The semiautonomous Department of Energy agency last year said it wanted to accomplish the feat by splitting pit production between the Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Plutonium Facility in New Mexico and a converted Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF) at the Savannah River Site: a plutonium disposal plant the NNSA canceled last year. By 2030, Los Alamos would manufacture 30 pits annually and the MFFF the other 50.

William “Ike” White, chief of staff to NNSA Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, said here in a separate  session that officials “still hope to have repurposed” the MFFF to manufacture up to 50 pits by 2030. Beyond internal NNSA cost estimates he would not share, White said the agency has not yet calculated how much it will cost to convert the plant for a new weapons mission. 

Last year, then-Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Terry Wallace said the lab’s PF-4 Plutonium Facility could actually manufacture all 80 pits a year by itself, if needed. White declined to say if Los Alamos can produce 80 war-reserve pits a year, but that NNSA headquarters “would see what they [Los Alamos] can do” after 2026.